How to write online for impact

Don’t write like this online…

Where Every Single Short Sentence is on a separate line.

Like this.

And this.

And this.

Why?

Well, it’s literally difficult to read. When we’re taking in information, our eyes need to move physically from one sentence to the next, to be able to make sense of the content.

Writing one short sentence after another is like holding up a massive stop sign at the end of every point.

It flows poorly – and affects tone and argument, turning a piece into a series of bald statements.

Just imagine reading a blog, article or entire book written this way!

There’s a reason why people write online like this: they think it has more impact. And algorithm hacking has told them that the longer people stay on their posts means more engagement and reach.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t stick around for content presented like that. It disengages me. As an editor, I look for great construction.

It’s a sign of a skilled communicator who:

  • really thinks about their audience
  • expresses themselves well
  • understands that communication isn’t a one-way channel.

The key here is that it isn’t just what you write, but how you write it that’s as important.

As Marshall McLuhan famously said:

‘The medium is the message.’

Good structure serves and supports valuable content: it’s key to clarity and cognition. If structure works against content, readers will drop out, fast – and go elsewhere for someone who can give them what they need.

So, don’t be afraid of a paragraph!

Whatever you do, don’t translate persistently short sentences to longform, such as a book. Many writers start out online on social media or blogging, and construct the same way for ebook and print – I see it in scripts I assess.

To be sure, walls of text aren’t good either, whether online or print. They’re just as hard to negotiate, because their sheer density does the opposite: completely buries the information, making it hard for readers to work out what is being said.

Short sentences are great – for impact. Use them wisely and they’ll serve you well.

Otherwise, when you’re writing online, it’s good to keep paras to three or so lines.

That’s the Goldilocks length: not too short, not too long – just right!

How to handle repetition… without repeating yourself

Rows of chairs with the same number repeated

Do you remember the 1980s BBC sitcom, Allo ‘Allo! ?

Set in Second World War France, it was a gloriously silly parody of uber-drab 1970s drama, Secret Army, about the Resistance working to get British soldiers out of the country to safety.

‘Allo ‘Allo!’s secret agent, Louise, always entered a scene covertly to reveal key intelligence with this line:

‘Leesen verry carefully, I shall say zis only wance!’

‘Allo ‘Allo! was replete with corny catchphrases that still amuse to this day… but she has a point.

When we’re writing, we’re aiming for impact. We want our audience to sit up, take notice and absorb what we’re saying. Preferably so we don’t have to say it again!

But sometimes we need to, for two reasons:

  1. to emphasise an important point
  2. to make the same point in a different context

At sentence and paragraph level, the key to handling repetition effectively is to avoid overdoing it.

Overemphasis risks hammering the point home
The problem that overemphasis presents is that it can read as hectoring the audience, irritating and even disengaging them completely.

If we’re writing a how-to book, it’s important to keep them with us: we really don’t want them to abandon it (or worse still, leave a negative review).

Here, it can be useful to ask ourselves:

  • Am I placing myself above my reader, rather than addressing them as intelligent equals?
  • Am I teaching and using language of the classroom, instead of being an expert companion and guiding them through a topic or point?
  • Am I venting personal frustration over a point – maybe even fixated on it?

And significantly, is the amount of repetition indicating that there isn’t enough material to meet the intention and length of the project?

This is important too, because if we are finding ourselves simply repeating the same points over and again, it may well be that we need to expand our range, whether in terms of angle or topics.

In this scenario, adjusting tone and going back to the drawing board to research usually helps to present and vary the content comfortably.

Making the same point in a different context is fine
The ideal way to do this is to call back to the previous incidence, and acknowledge the repetition at this juncture:

‘As mentioned previously…’

‘As we saw in Chapter X…’

– and rephrase the point.

Above all, keep it short. There’s no need to go into detail all over again, as the reader will have already assimilated that information. Usually, the callback is enough to jog their memory, they will know what’s being referred to.

Pet phrases
Every author has words or phrases they love or fall back on. This can vary wildly between writers, but the key thing is to recognise how, when and where it happens, and eliminate it if overused.

It’s fine to employ your favourite phrases once or twice, but over the course of a whole manuscript it can become noticeable.

To help with this, make a thesaurus your friend and consciously work on other ways to convey the same thing. This challenges you to expand your descriptive range; and if you aren’t a natural writer, it’ll help you to improve and hone your craft.

Don’t cut and paste
The one repetition crime never to commit, is cutting and pasting text to appear somewhere else in a script. It’s glaringly obvious to readers when it happens, and presents as lazy work.

Do be sure not to dot the same sentences or paragraphs around your manuscript, in the hope that it won’t be noticed – it will, and readers won’t be pleased about it. Why? Because they’re paying good money for your book, and don’t appreciate content that’s been phoned in.

This is particularly important if you have a book deal: the copy-editor will have been briefed by your publisher to weed out this kind of content, and query it.

Granted, repetition isn’t always easy to spot in our own work – especially when we’ve spent weeks or months writing solidly, and reached the stage where we can’t see the wood for the trees!

It’s understandable we might miss some of it, or be unaware that we’re going over the same ground.

A good editor can help with this: we can guide you and your content to ensure it’s box fresh for your audience.

…And says things only once!

 

For more handy writing tips, check out my free mini-guides!

To write well, you need to do this…

Person holding open book

Read.

As much and as widely as you can!

Why? Because it exposes you to the key elements of good writing: style, structure, story.

Try exploring different genres, go on a journey of book discovery. Find what you like and don’t like.

Ask yourself:

– Why does this writing appeal to me?
– How did it hook me – and keep me on board?
– Why was that so effective?

Above all, read in the genre you want to write in – go deep.

For example, if you’re looking to publish a business book, it’s important to make it your business to get well acquainted – not just with the big name titles and bestsellers, but what’s out there in niche topics too.

Successful business books specialise: they speak to specific pain points and sectors.

There are three good reasons for making this a research exercise:

1. To check out the competition
2. To check out the market sector
3. To work out your book’s USP

Then, find your own voice, angle and style. Just be yourself, because it’s authentic.

That’s what readers are going to want when they settle down to your book.

Something that’s uniquely you!

Why you don’t need to be a perfectionist to write well

neon sign of 'and breathe' on leafy background

Do you need to be a perfectionist to be a good writer?

Perfectionism seems to have replaced impostor syndrome as the anxiety du jour.

I’m here to tell you: no, it isn’t essential. It isn’t even a prerequisite for what we do.

Perfectionism is actually the enemy of creativity, and counterproductive to what you want to achieve. It encourages both an inability to let go, and self-flagellating worry.

There’s a big difference between perfectionism and commitment to excellence.

Perfectionism is setting an impossible standard to achieve, then forcing yourself to go over the same thing time and again without any hope of a satisfactory result.

Committing to excellence is delivering high quality, time after time. It’s realistic, focused productivity, without stressing over a need to get things so perfect that you tie yourself up knots over it and fail to get anywhere.

Much of this shift comes with experience: you become more relaxed and confident in your own ability.

The day we realise perfection is impossible is the day we start being truly productive.

The key is to stop fretting pointlessly, shift our mindset and get on with it.

It’s OK to accept that perfection is unachievable. Why put ourselves through it, when we could be writing?

Instead, we can stop wasting valuable time and energy over it, and commit to excellence instead.

Doing that is good enough!

How to self-edit like a pro

Laptop with text onscreen

Are you writing and wondering what’s the best way to get your draft into shape? You’ve got your content down, now the work of self-editing starts.

Great! But first – and this is really important – set it aside, for as long as you can.

That sounds counterintuitive, right? Here’s why.

Writing is creative, and editing is analytical. They require different mental processes and approaches – it’s hard to do both at the same time.

Trying to edit yourself as you write can get in the way. It stifles creative flow.

Separating the two, and giving your mind a clear breather between them, helps you to reset and go back in fresh.

It also helps you deal with any parts of the text that might be bugging you. Even if the answer hasn’t arrived during your time out, you’ll be in a far better headspace to go back and tackle it.

Doing nothing is a totally valid part of the creative process. It frees your mind to tick over in the background while you’re getting on with other things.

Inspired connections and ideas can pop up when we aren’t consciously focusing on our task.

So don’t feel ‘I’m not writing’ if you aren’t chained 24/7 to your keyboard. Thinking time is just as important too!

So take a good break – as long as you possibly can – then start to edit.

When you’ve done that:

  • Print out your script – it’s useful for quick notes, plus text is easier to analyse on the page than on-screen.
  • Find a quiet time and space where you’ll be undisturbed, and settle into a comfy chair with your pages.
  • Read them aloud – this helps you detach and shift perspective from your writing to the reader experience. Reading aloud also helps with phrasing and narrative flow: you can begin to see where the pauses, paragraphing and structure need to be, as well as punctuation.
  • Make notes, then go back in to edit again.

This process helps you take your script as far as you can, especially if you’re planning to work with an editor.

How do you handle drafting, and what are your challenges in editing your drafts?

I’d love to know! Tell me in the comments below.

How to get and process feedback on your writing

Typewriter with the word 'sharing' on the inserted paper

Putting writing out for critique is tough. And brave!

But it’s also essential, for writers to work on their craft. For non-fiction writing, it’s absolutely key to ensure what’s being said is clear, understood by the audience, reads well and, above all, engages them.

There are various forms of feedback you can seek for your writing, from informal to professional.

Friends and family
Informal feedback from friends and family is usually the first tentative dip into critique.

It can be useful, but there is an issue in that because loved ones are so close and care so much about us, they may not be quite so objective, or able to feel free to say what we might need to hear.

There is also the possibility that when someone external to that tight-knit group points this out (as I’m doing now!), sometimes the reaction can be a bit defended.

Our close ones don’t want to hurt us, so if they do provide notes, they’re likely to be supportive and positive – which is great, cheering on always welcome!

But the feedback might not be technically informed enough to guide us effectively in our writing, or the content. It’s a good first step – but to get where we need to go, looking outside our immediate circle is what we really need.

Beta readers
Beta reads are usually supplied by people either knowledgeable in the field we’re writing about, or are writers themselves who can pick up on elements of the text in direct relation to the genre, topic and craft.

Their perspective is the reader experience, which in turn informs the writing.

Much of the transition through feedback is making the jump from what’s in our head to what’s on the page for others.

And when we’re writing non-fiction, essentially we are writing for others rather than ourselves.

Beta input can be helpful because past a certain point, we can become so close to our own text that it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

This is known as ‘revision hell’, where we’ve worked so long and hard on our text that we can’t seem to make sense of it anymore, and just need a fresh perspective.

Betas can be found in writing groups, online groups and on social media; some editors read beta too both in and outside of their professional work.

If you’re writing a how-to book, it’s also a good idea to ask a knowledgeable expert/colleague or industry peer, and someone in your target audience, to read your content. Three to five readers total is a good number to get enough comments to consider.

When you have their agreement to read, give your readers a pre-prepared list of questions that you’d like them to consider in addition to their own response.

For example, you could ask them if the coverage is sufficient, if they feel you’ve missed anything, would the text benefit from inclusion of X topic, Y idea, etc. This will be specific to your script, so there is no one-size-fits-all questionnaire here.

What this does is help you get targeted feedback on any parts of the writing or content which, for example, you might be experiencing confusion over, have been bugging you, or simply aren’t sure if they work.

You can also ask for general feedback, such as did they like the content, what appealed to them – the important thing, though, is to know why.

So be sure to include open-ended questions that give your readers space to respond, and prompts them to specify their reasons.

When should I approach readers?
It’s best to approach betas before engaging an editor, and definitely not at the same time as professional assistance.

The reason is that it can confuse the process. Once you start working with an editor, the collaboration will be technical, structured and directional, targeted towards successful publication.

Pulling the process out to include what might be completely contradictory suggestions from informal and professional readers, causes lack of focus and clarity – for both you and your editor.

Your editor may need to deal with random alteration between drafts as a result of beta input that they haven’t seen before, or new content for which they haven’t already provided notes. It can also be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

So do get your beta input first, take the script as far as you can, then consult a professional to help you get your script to the finish line.

Professional editing
Editors provide feedback in the form of manuscript critique and assessment, and development editing. (For more on development, see here).

In terms of critique, assessment is a high-level overview of the text, usually supplied as a report (‘editorial letter’), sometimes with notes at source in the text to show the author how and where they manifest.

The feedback here is practical and bespoke, giving you actionable notes and examples of the core strengths of your writing and content.

It also outlines any aspects of the text which might benefit from input or adjustment. It will be balanced, and take into account your purpose and intention for the script.

It’s important to reassure you here that nothing an editor says about your script is ever a diktat!

Any feedback is only a suggestion: you remain in control of your writing and content.

It’s also important to emphasise this:

Critique is not criticism!

A good editor will never slam your writing.

The feedback you receive will be measured, respectful, and in the full appreciation and understanding of your writing and publishing goals.

Handling our reaction
As I said at the start of this piece, dealing with feedback can be tough. Our writing comes from our creative source – who we are, what we think and feel – so it can be challenging to detach from that.

And it’s completely understandable.

Let me reassure you that every good writer has had to face it at some point – no matter how talented.

Even uber-famous, bestselling authors, who’ve sat down with their publishing editors and had to hear that what’s on the page hasn’t quite emerged fully-formed, pristine and ready for an adoring public!

Our first reaction might be emotional, offended, outraged, injured or simply:

No – I don’t think so…’

That’s entirely natural, and perfectly OK.

When we’re processing feedback, it’s important not to operate on that first reaction. By all means feel angry, upset or annoyed… just be sure to step away from your email while you’re feeling like that!

But seriously… read the feedback, and set it aside.

Give it time, just let your thoughts and feelings do what they need to. Then, when you’ve given it space, go back in and see if the notes resonate.

Sometimes they will, and you realise they’re helping or giving good insight into what you want to achieve.

Sometimes they won’t, and you disagree.

Sometimes, in the professional feedback context, they’ll prompt discussion between you and your editor to clarify purpose, intention and meaning.

And all of this is perfectly OK too.

See feedback as a proactive step to a positive outcome, and you’ll be well on the way to making your work the very best it can be.

 

If you’d like to know more about how to work with an editor and the different types of editing, take a look at my free mini-guides!

And contact me for more information here.

How to turn your story into a how-to book

Neon sign saying we are all made of storiex

You’re expert in your field and fantastic at what you do. How to shape it into a how-to book?

Authors often start with their own story.

Storytelling is hardwired into us as humans, it’s innate. We start young, and love the adventure and intrigue of a quest or journey.

Your story shows:

  • Authority
  • Knowledge
  • Insight

If you’re a businessperson, it could be from:

  • Your personal or professional background
  • How you started and scaled your enterprise
  • Successes and failures
  • How you became a leader
  • What led you to where you are today

There’s just one thing to bear in mind: readers choosing a how-to book aren’t signing up for a memoir. (Not unless it genuinely is a look-back over your career!)

They definitely want your story, but they also want practical information, solid guidance and actionable takeaways.

Self-focus is fine – in good measure. Beyond that, pages and pages of life story turn your audience into bystanders.

The key to framing your story in the how-to context is…

Service.

How to do this?

  • Tell your story first
  • Establish your authority as author
  • Then give the reader what they need.

Give them your wisdom and experience through personal anecdotes, situations and case studies dotted throughout the text, and use them to support your learning points.

(Caveat: be mindful of legal issues in case studies when mentioning real names, identifiable people and companies – libel and privacy law are a fact!)

You have a unique and valuable perspective to share, so leverage it!

Be the author that readers love to learn from and rave about.

How do you tell your business story? Let me know in the comments!

How to focus your content for business readers

View up of building to clouds

Want to know how to write great how-to content for business readers?

You’re an expert with terrific knowledge, but can’t quite work out how to present it for them?

It’s easy: just take things back to basics.

Ask yourself these three fundamental questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What are their problems and pain points?
  • How does my knowledge solve them?

The key to taking your content from page to people is stepping into their shoes:

  • Give practical examples that relate to them
  • Provide useful tools and takeaways
  • Keep it simple

Business readers are time-poor: they respond to helpful content that’s direct and easily accessible.

Give them what they need, and you’ll have a book they’ll rave about!

When you’re a writer, is doing nothing unproductive?

Book page with 'productivity' heading

A good question!

Well, it depends how you come at the issue. If you’ve stuff you really need to get done, then yes.

If you’re writing, then not necessarily.

‘Always be doing’ can be the enemy of creativity. We pressure ourselves to deliver when we might benefit more from stopping to take a breather instead.

Why? Because the subconscious actually does its best work when it isn’t actively concentrating on something. When it’s left to form connections, come up with fresh ideas and run with them.

Of course, this isn’t to deny the role of structure and discipline in our writing schedule. We still need to show up and get those words down.

But we also need to give our thoughts room to breathe. To solve problems and find inspiration.

This isn’t just self-care woo. A study by Stanford University has shown that stepping away from our desks and taking a walk can boost creative output by 60 per cent!

And even if we don’t have a solution to our creative problem, taking a break puts us in a much better place to be able to tackle it.

The next time you hit a writing wall, don’t plough on through. Go easy on yourself and take that break.

You never know what fantastic ideas your mind can deliver – if you give it a rest, and the chance.

How do you give yourself space when you’re writing?

Let me know in the comments!

How does green space boost your writing?

Looking up at tree canopy

Did you know that a walk in green space can boost your creativity?

It’s well-known that access to green space is great for wellbeing – especially in cities. The New Scientist reports that studies have found it also supports creative thinking.

The thing is, writing is deep work. It requires huge reserves of concentration and mental effort.

Sometimes we need to top up those reserves – and where better to do it than in beautiful green space?

Editing is hard work too, an analytical process. At some point during our writing we’ll switch from making words to shaping them, and that requires a step away to clear our mind.

Often it can be helpful to take a break between the last full stop of our piece, and going back to assess its form.

One of the best things I ever did to support my professional practice is membership of a botanic garden.

It’s my urban sanctuary and a place I can go whenever I’m mulling over a script critique, deep in developmental work, or simply need to reset between projects.

It always helps.

This is my favourite green space, captured in gorgeous light. A lovely spot to restore and revive.

Sunlight through green trees

What’s your favourite place to escape to when you’re doing deep work?

Let me know in the comments!